Ice Fishing Perch and Walleye in the Brush
If you want to catch more fish through the ice, you can "Stick It!"
By the On Ice Tour Pro Staff
Walleye and perch ice fishing in the brush.
A growing legion of anglers has one thing to say when it comes to many bodies of water across ice-fishing country.
"Stick it!" they are exclaiming, and they're not talking about the rising cost of fishing licenses, user fees, taxes or even gasoline. They're talking about one of the most productive forms of habitat that exists beneath winter's cover of ice.
Not every lake or reservoir is blessed with an abundance of rock piles, reefs, sandbars and gravel beds, but most have some form of submerged wood that attracts and holds a variety of fish species. And while wood can be productive year-round, it becomes a focal point for many anglers in the know during the hard-water season. Guide Jeff Dosch spends most of his winter in pursuit of walleyes and perch on Devil's Lake in North Dakota. Pro angler Tommy Skarlis of Walker, Minn., grew up chasing panfish around the lakes and reservoirs of Minnesota and Iowa. The wood, both said, is often where it's at.
Perch Fishing at Devils Lake, North Dakota
Devils Lake is a perfect example of what fishing in the wood is all about. Over the last five or six years, rising water levels have created acres and acres of new habitat. Meanwhile, anglers are learning how to interpret what they're finding, and how to make it pay off with impressive catches of quality walleyes.
Guide Jeff Dosch spends most of his winter in pursuit of walleyes and perch on Devil's Lake in North Dakota.
"The brush is the No. 1 spot for walleyes on Devils Lake," said Dosch.
During the first part of the ice-fishing season, Dosch keys on main-lake areas with a gradual slope to deep water. From there, he seeks out sections that are littered with what locals describe as "buck brush." Also known as "scrub brush," it's that gnarly, tangled mess of vines, saplings and branches that make woodland hunters choose another route.
"Buck brush is good because it holds so many different kinds of baitfish," said Dosch. "There are a lot of minnows in there, and there will be freshwater shrimp clinging to the branches. It's great for walleye, but it can be good for perch, also."
Buck brush that still has some life tends to produce and attract more aquatic insects, which in turn, draws in more baitfish than old, dead brush.
Dosch said good brush isn't always right along the shoreline, either. Flooding on Devil's Lake has been extensive enough that quality buck brush can be found up to 200 yards off shore.
Fishing these areas can be tricky, and it requires a specialized approach. While it's possible to pull a few fish out of the brush by fishing above it, it's generally more productive to seek out sections with clearings between the brush piles.
Devils Lake Fishing for Walleyes
"Walleyes like those places where they can move back and forth between clumps of brush or between points," noted Dosch. "And they will move into those clearings to feed. The other good thing about finding these areas is that you don't have to worry about hooking a fish and not being able to get it out of the brush.
"Finding these areas is where I really like my Aqua-Vu (underwater camera). It eliminates a lot of the guesswork and the moving around drilling holes to find the openings."
Anglers who don't have access to a camera can narrow down the search by finding water where the tips of the buck brush are sticking through the ice, and then working their way down the slope and out into the lake from there.
Once a location is chosen, the trick is to get the walleyes' attention. All the debris in the water limits their vision, Dosch explained, so anglers must appeal to the fish's other senses.
"I like lures like Northland Tackle’s Buckshot Rattle Spoon or Sonars" he said. "A lot of times I'll take a jigging rod and jig two feet off the bottom to attract the fish. In another hole, I'll have a dead rod with a minnow on a bare hook sitting about six inches off the bottom. About 75 percent of the time, the walleyes come eat the minnow."
Take plenty of lures along, Dosch added.
"Inevitably, you are going to lose some tackle," he said. "It comes with the game. You have to go where the fish are. It's that simple."
Anglers can improve their chances by getting to their fishing location early.
"You want to get there and set up before primetime, which is usually about the last hour of daylight," said Dosch. "Especially in shallow water, those fish spook easily."
Ice Fishing for Panfish
Pro angler Tommy Skarlis of Walker, Minn., grew up chasing panfish around the lakes and reservoirs of Minnesota and Iowa.
Skarlis grew up in Iowa where the best hard-water fishing is found on the man-made lakes across the southern third of the state. For the most part, it's flooded farmland where old creek channels are often lined with standing hardwoods.
"In any newer reservoir, fertility is high and critters like worms; grubs and aquatic insects relate to those pieces of wood and those trees," said Skarlis. "Almost every species that swims will relate to that wood at one time or another because of the natural predator-prey relationship.
"Fish around new wood, and you're going to be successful."
Most of the wood in these situations is visible, and once the creek channels or roadbeds are identified, an angler can figure out where the key inside bends and outside corners lay. Inside bends tend to feature softer bottoms that attract panfish species like bluegill and crappie, while the protruding corners usually consist of rock or hard bottom that draws walleye.
Skarlis said mobility is one key to attacking the wood along creek channels, old roadbeds and even fencelines.
"Sometimes, there's no method to the madness other than drilling a bunch of holes and moving from stick-up to stick-up," he said. "A lot of times, you'll be going along pulling a fish here and a fish there. All of a sudden, you'll find the mother lode relating to one certain tree.
"I've had it happen dozens of times when I'm fishing timber. My StrikeMaster Lazer Mag auger is my best friend in those places."
Older lakes may not provide the benefit of visible standing timber. That's when maps that show the old channels and roadbeds combined with tools like an Aqua Vu underwater camera and a flasher are invaluable.
Skarlis also suggested drilling a semi-circle of holes around docks in lakes where homes dot the shorelines.
"Most brushpiles set by homeowners are within casting distance of their docks," he pointed out. "If you work your way around them, you will find them. Then you can punch in the coordinates on your GPS."
No matter what the age or position of the wood, a quality sonar unit, especially one with a zoom feature such as Vexilar’s FL-18 helps the angler distinguish between the tips of the branches and the fish. It also helps the angler understand the mood the fish are in that day by the way they approach and attack, or don't attack, a lure.
Skarlis prefers slightly heavier line for brush fishing, such as Berkley's Micro-Ice Fireline.
"You want to be aggressive, and get those fish up and out of there as fast as you can," he said. "If it does wrap you around a tree, sometimes you can set that rod down for awhile and it will unwrap itself."
Panfish Lures for Panfish
Like Dosch, Skarlis prefers lures that are noisy and highly visible.
"You have to draw the fish out of some of that timber," he said. "Lindy's Techni-Glo lures and Rattl'r spoons help accomplish that. If the fish are really aggressive, I've had very good luck using Berkley's Power Naturals in place of live bait."
Regardless of which species of fish you are targeting, or the location within the ice belt of North America you are looking, the wood is often the best place to be.
Branch out. Learn the ways of the wood. Just say, "Stick it!"
Editor’s Note: On Ice Tour (a division of WildSide Diversified), co-founded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis, is an extensive effort focusing on generating excitement for the great sport of ice fishing. For more articles, fishing tips, info on the latest and greatest ice gear or a schedule of On Ice Tour Pro Staff appearances, log onto